Trans-Siberian Railway: Beijing to Ulaan Baatar, June, 2016

Noodle bowls on Chinese train

The Trans-Siberian Railway was a big goal for us and we had to do some research to make it happen. We were even forced to do some advance planning, not our strong suit. There are several ways to get from Beijing to Moscow and it takes about seven days. We hoped to stop in Mongolia, and in Irkutsk, Russia. We assumed we would have to pay a travel agent for tickets since we would be crossing three countries and multiple time zones. Also, buying tickets locally or even online in different languages and time zones and currencies for the six of us could prove difficult. But then we looked into local trains from Beijing to Mongolia and it didn’t seem too hard. It also looked like booking it ourselves for that leg alone would save us $1300. That was worth some hassles! 

And so we found ourselves getting Chinese rail tickets to the capital city of Inner Mongolia. Yes, we were going to Hohhot, a little out of our way but an easy connection to the border, and then to the Chinese border town of Erlian, or Erleinhot, or any of a number of other names we were told. In the Chinese Rail system, it is Erlian and we had to argue three times in different locations before China Rail would sell us tickets from Hohhot to there. China Rail kept insisting that it was an international journey; it is not. In fact there is an overnight bus from Beijing to Hohhot, however we opted for the longer, marginally more expensive option of the train. It defies logic at times, I know, but I just love riding trains. Besides, the last Chinese sleeper bus we took was a little uncomfortable. We had an amazing journey. 

Scenery in China from Beijing to Hohhot 

We spent a day getting to Hohhot and the train was comfortable and the scenery was gorgeous. The landscape had little villages with wooden and brick buildings, rivers, rocky hills, fields, and eventually a lovely sunset. We didn’t spend any time in rural China, so it was nice to get a glimpse from the train. We arrived in Hohhot, which was refreshingly cool, and had a layover of about three hours before we got on the next train. We saw Mongolian script, which is fluid and vertical, for the first time. We heard the language, too, soft and full of whispers. Inner Mongolia is part of China, but has people who consider themselves Mongolian and do not necessarily speak Chinese. We met a Mongolian man on the next train who spoke English fairly well. He explained that he is a Chinese citizen but is Mongolian. He showed us photos of horses and camels belonging to his family. He also told us proudly of a film- I think it is called ‘Horse Boy’- about a boy with autism who finds help from horses and shamanic treatment in Mongolia. Another thing he told us is that camels cry when they hear traditional Mongolian music. He said people play this music to mother camels who do not take good care of their babies and it causes the mothers to nurture their young. But this was an overnight train and mostly we slept. At around 5am, we arrived in Erlian. 

Leaving China

Our next challenge was crossing the border into Mongolia. Luckily, we were able to follow a local woman heading home from university in China. She helped us understand that the man with the car would help us cross the border in a couple of hours when it opened. We got into the man’s car with her and a young man from Kuala Lumpur. Instead of waiting at the border, though, we were taken to what seemed to be the driver’s house. We were trying to get settled in their living room, which looked like it doubled as a small convenience store, when DH offended the proprietress by using her deep freezer as a seat. The twins were trying to nap on Fiercely’s lap, the three of them plus Cleverly on a small couch. I was sitting on our luggage and worrying we had broken the freezer. The lady of the house clucked and fussed over the freezer legs but the locals laughed and told us not to worry. During this time, the driver left and returned with four Israelis and not long after we went to the border. Another vehicle arrived and it appeared he would take us through the border. We agreed on a fee and packed into the van. The driver wanted everyone to pay the full price upfront. We refused but offered to pay half, which he refused. I was determined not to be left at the border office as I had read can happen, and I’m glad we held out. 
This border was a simple crossing. We did not need visas, thank goodness. Our driver, who had stopped multiple times on mysterious errands before taking us to the border, suddenly was in a hurry. He hustled us into the border offices and tried to hustle us out but the traveler from KL was having trouble and we wanted to wait for him. The driver started playing us, telling that traveler we were in a hurry and telling us we should leave the guy and the Mongolian woman who was helping him. Coincidentally they had already paid the driver while we and the Israelis had not. We insisted on waiting until the KL traveler said he would be there a while and we should go. Then we went with the driver to the Mongolian border town, Zamiin-Uud. Cleverly and Fiercely sat up front with the driver and said he was very uptight, cursing (presumably) at someone on his cellphone and yelling at them for trying to lock the door and put on their seat belts. It was entertaining, and then he tried to charge us extra for the twins even though we had agreed on a rate before leaving. So, lesson learned, don’t pay until you get where you are going, agree on a price beforehand, and be extra wary at border crossings.  Our train in Mongolia

So then we were in Mongolia but we needed a ride to the capital Ulaan Baatar. The woman who had helped us get across the border helped us get train tickets, thank goodness, because the ticket office was small and no one seemed to speak English. One small issue was that the train did not leave for seven hours. There didn’t seem to be much to do, but we joined forces with the other travelers, piled our luggage together, and took turns watching it. The guy from KL even showed up, having successfully crossed the border. We all were heading to UB on the same train.  

Going through the Gobi desert

I took the twins to eat, first at a local place where we tried dumplings likely made of goat meat. Not a big hit with the mostly-vegetarian Fantastics. Then we tried pizza as advertised two doors down. This ended up taking nearly two hours to reach our table and had the meat of at least three types of animals on it. We had heard about meat-oriented Mongolian food, and here it was. We gamely (ha!) ate a lot of it and went back to wait some more at the train station. Eventually we could get on the train.  The train was kind of luxurious, in an old Soviet kind of way. There were carpets on the floor, patterned thick blankets on the beds, heavy wooden door and window frames, and an actual wood fire heating hot water. It was the hot water that got my personal journey off to a rough start. I was filling up our metal water bottle with the hot water to drink later when it cooled. I hate buying the single-use plastic water bottles, and the trains have boiled water which is safe to drink. It is extremely hot, however. I was filling up a second bottle when the train attendant started yelling at me in Mongolian. The first bottle was spilling onto the floor, and somehow onto her leg, though she was a few feet away. I apologized and went back to our seat, but she came by at least once to show me the red area on her leg and give me a dirty look. Oops.

Dining car and wood-fired hot water heater

We slept on the train and arrived in Ulaan Baatar early the next morning. It took us three trains, about 36 hours, and about $50 each (including border transportation) all told. We were in Mongolia!


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